Body odor is caused by a mix of bacteria and sweat on your skin. Your body odor can change due to hormones, the food you eat, infection, medications or underlying conditions like diabetes. Prescription-strength antiperspirants or medications may help.
Body odor is what you smell when your sweat comes in contact with the bacteria on your skin. Sweat itself doesn’t smell, but when the bacteria on your skin mix with your sweat, it causes an odor. Body odor can smell sweet, sour, tangy or like onions. The amount you sweat doesn’t necessarily impact your body odor. That’s why a person can have an unpleasant body odor but not be sweaty. Conversely, a person can sweat excessively but not smell. This is because body odor is a result of the type of bacteria on your skin and how that bacteria interacts with sweat, not the sweat itself.
Sweating is the secretion of fluids by sweat glands onto your skin’s surface. There are two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. Apocrine glands are responsible for producing body odor.
Eccrine glands secrete sweat directly to the surface of your skin. As the sweat evaporates, it helps cool your skin and regulate your body temperature. It doesn’t produce a smell. When your body temperature rises due to physical exertion or being hot, the evaporation of sweat from your skin produces a cooling effect. Eccrine glands cover most of your body, including palms and soles.
Apocrine glands open up into your hair follicles. Hair follicles are the tube-like structure that keeps your hair in your skin. You can find apocrine glands in your groin and armpits. These glands produce sweat that can smell when it comes in contact with bacteria on your skin. Apocrine glands don’t start working until puberty, which is why you don’t smell body odor in young children.
Sweating is a natural body process, but due to certain foods we eat, hygiene practices or genetics, sweat can have a bad smell once it comes into contact with your skin. Changes in the amount you sweat or the smell of your body odor could indicate a medical condition.
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People assigned male at birth (AMAB) have more frequent problems with body odor because they have more hair (so they have more apocrine glands). Apocrine glands become active once a person reaches puberty, so body odor doesn’t begin until adolescence.
Body odor happens when bacteria on your skin come in contact with sweat. Our skin is naturally covered with bacteria. When we sweat, the water, salt and fat mix with this bacteria and can cause odor. The odor can be bad, good or have no smell at all. Factors like the foods you eat, hormones or medications can affect body odor. A condition called hyperhidrosis makes a person sweat excessively. People with this condition may be more susceptible to body odor because they sweat so much, but it’s often the eccrine sweat glands that cause the most discomfort with sweaty palms and feet.
Every time you sweat, there’s a chance you’ll produce an unpleasant body odor. Some people are more susceptible to foul body odor than other people.
Other factors that can affect body odor are:
There can be several reasons your sweat smells bad. For example, certain medications, supplements or foods can make your sweat smell bad. Remember, the sweat itself isn’t what smells; it’s the bacteria on your skin combined with the sweat.
Several medical conditions and diseases are associated with changes in a person’s usual body scent:
If you have diabetes, a change in body odor could be a sign of diabetes-related ketoacidosis. High ketone levels cause your blood to become acidic and your body odor to be fruity. In the case of liver or kidney disease, your odor may give off a bleach-like smell due to toxin buildup in your body.
Yes, changes in hormones can cause your body odor to smell. Hot flashes, night sweats and hormonal fluctuations experienced during menopause cause excessive sweating, which leads to changes in body odor. Some people believe their body odor changes when they’re pregnant or menstruating. Research suggests a person’s body odor changes during ovulation (the time in a person’s menstrual cycle when they can become pregnant) to attract a mate.
The saying, “you are what you eat,” may apply to body odor. If you eat food rich in sulfur, you may develop body odor. Sulfur smells like rotten eggs. When your body secretes it in your sweat, it can put off an unpleasant smell. Examples of sulfur-rich foods are:
Certain foods can make you sweat more. This extra sweat can give you a stronger body odor. The foods don’t directly trigger body odor, but they can be a factor in how you smell because they affect how much you sweat. These include:
Eliminating or reducing these triggers may help improve your body odor.
Treatments for excessive sweating and body odor depend on the underlying cause, which your healthcare provider can determine through a physical exam and blood or urine tests.
Treatment for body odor could include:
If you want a more natural approach to treating armpit body odor, there may be options that work. Talk to your healthcare provider about:
Deodorants work by masking body odor with a more pleasant-smelling fragrance. Antiperspirants, on the other hand, reduce how much you sweat. Make sure you use an underarm product that says “antiperspirant” on the packaging. The active ingredient in most antiperspirants is aluminum. Apply antiperspirant after showering or bathing and before bed. Make sure you apply antiperspirants to dry skin for the best results.
If over-the-counter antiperspirants don’t help, your healthcare provider may be able to prescribe a stronger antiperspirant.
Antibacterial soaps wash away the bad bacteria on your skin. Look for products at your local drugstore that say “antibacterial” on the packaging. Using cleansers or spot treatments containing benzoyl peroxide (like PanOxyl® or Clearasil®) may also help. Benzoyl peroxide can also reduce the number of bacteria on your skin.
Consider contacting your healthcare provider if you experience the following symptoms:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Bacteria on your skin cause body odor. It’s completely normal to have a natural body odor and isn’t necessarily related to how much you sweat. Sweat itself is odorless. Some medical conditions, genetics, having overweight or eating certain foods could make you more susceptible to bad body odor.
If you’re self-conscious about your body odor, there are things you can try to reduce or mask the unpleasant smell. Using a stronger antiperspirant, shaving and washing with antibacterial soap several times a day can help. If none of these solutions work for you, contact your healthcare provider. They may recommend a prescription treatment or run tests to rule out other conditions.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/04/2022.
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